It can’t be easy to be in opposition during a crisis.
The current governing parties experienced this difficulty after the Christchurch Earthquake. Now National and ACT are looking for ways to be an effective political opposition without being seen as obstructive in a time of need.
Of course, complaining & kvetching are part and parcel of an opposition’s role. And they exercise them daily at the Epidemic Response Committee and during Question Time.
But it gets trickier when the generalities are over and legislation is up for debate. Strenuously opposing legislation that is aimed at assisting the afflicted might be considered poor tactics.
But neither can an opposition simply salute as bills pass by - so where’s the middle ground? How do you oppose while also supporting?
“I think New Zealanders have understood that the Parliament and the Government has to respond swiftly to an incredible situation that we're facing with COVID-19 and the impact that it's having across the economy. So they do need to respond quickly and effectively. But it is also important that the legislation that's brought before the House is properly scrutinised so that we can have a reasonable understanding of it, and that system failed last week.”
That was National’s Paul Goldsmith demonstrating that even without mentioning the substance of a bill you can raise faults with process. That was from the House’s debate on Tuesday about the COVID-19 Response (Further Management Measures) Legislation Bill (as are all the MPs quoted in this article).
“The National Party will be supporting it. It is an important time for New Zealanders to see that the House can work together where we can pass legislation or make changes that will help everyday New Zealanders and, in this instance, a lot of businesses who are facing great uncertainty. But I am going to preface that by saying I don't think the bill goes far enough, or at least there are many other things that we need to focus on.”
Todd McClay showcases a second approach. The general message is ‘we support the efforts you’re making, but we would do this and so much more.’
A related tactic is to play the role of Cassandra, warning of dire futures that could be avoided if only things were done your way. In the sure expectation that economically things will get worse - and you will be able to say ‘if only you had listened this might have been avoided’.
Another tactic is looking for areas where you can make suggestions. Here’s National’s Shane Reti bringing his own experience of medical practicalities.
“The audio and teleconferencing abilities under this schedule are useful. I just want to exercise some caution; a mental health examination done by audio or done by teleconference will be incredibly difficult. It's already difficult in person and there are so many cues in person that you pick up that I would just exercise some caution and great skill in using that part of the bill.”
National’s Brett Hudson demonstrates a tactic whereby you agree to swallow the bill but point out you’re pretty sure it’s a rat and, what’s more, it’s dead.
“I note with some trepidation, as I went through the provisions related to these measures, yet again—and I have at least been consistent in my criticism of Government bills which have large, broad, powerful regulation-making powers riddled throughout; I've done so on the Arms Legislation Bill, on the Fair Trading Amendment Bill, and the conduct of financial institutions—are, again, measures that have enormous scope of regulatory amendment to them once this bill, should it be enacted, is enacted.”
He also invokes the traditional opposition privilege of ‘all care, no responsibility’. Saying more or less ‘we’ll vote for it but don’t blame us if it all goes to hell in a handbasket’.
“So we support the principle of the measures. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are guaranteed to work, and it doesn't mean that as they are written they will have the consequence that they intend.”
And finally, you can oppose it regardless of whether you think it has some merit. This can give you a whole lane all to yourself. ACT leader David Seymour.
“I think allowing charities to continue raffles digitally is very sensible. I think some of the local government amendments allowing people to have digital meetings and some of the administrative changes allowing forms to be filed digitally are very sensible. I think extending firearm and driver licences is very sensible.
“But the question, when a member of Parliament decides whether or not to vote for a piece of legislation, is not 'Does the member of Parliament think there are some sensible things?' but 'Can they in good conscience vote for a bill that not one person in this Parliament' — I can guarantee — 'has properly read and understood?' For that reason, I stand in opposition to this bill on behalf of the ACT Party.”
In many ways being in opposition is hard. You get to fight the good fight, even dream the good dream but you remain oh so far from the levers. Brett Hudson expressed it with some resignation.
“Alas, we're on the wrong side of the House at the moment; we can have great plans but we can't legislate for them.”